There is much debate about the use of protective gear in martial arts. Many styles only allow light or no contact, no strikes to the face, etc. and therefore do not require protections. What happens when a practitioner encounters violence in real life however comes at a surprise. You have a lot to learn in a second while getting pounded in the face by an experienced attacker.. Not the best time to learn taking hits. Aikido would be a very fierce style if it incorporated strikes, giving and taking. I attended a Kung-Fu (Wushu) class as a teenager. We were not allowed to strike the face. Actually, we barely touched each-others. After six months, I realized that I wasn’t learning anything useful and quit. My Karate experience (Shotokan) was a bit better. We had protections, but there wasn’t much control. The same was true for my full-contact and Taekwon-Do short practices.
My friend Phil recently stopped-by with a couple padded helmets he got at Goodwill for a few dollars. While Systema discourages the use of protections, it was too tempting to give it a try and see if it would affect the way we worked. It wasn’t really sparring, because Phil wore the helmets (he put on two!) and attacked, while I wore gloves and defended.
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Wearing protections seems to have two negative side-effects:
- You are not so affraid of getting hit.
- You tend to hit harder, with less control.
Taking hits to the body really isn’t much of a problem. Most people can not hit hard enough to cause internal damage. Proper breathing, relaxation and a bit of practice goes a long way to prevent injury. Getting hit in the face is a bit unnerving, but you get used to it and start to care a bit less.. In five years of Systema, I have been hit in the face countless times, hard enough to be really uncomfortable, but I never got a black eye or lost a tooth. I give credit here to our slow practice and control. Top Systema instructors are masters at precision and control. They know exactly how hard to hit someone and where without hurting them while inflicting a good amount of pain.
Add protective gear to he mix, and the psychology of sparring changes. People start to hit harder. The positioning of one’s fist becomes less of a problem. You can hit bone with a glove, it doesn’t matter. A slightly misaligned wrist is no longer a painful reminder to strike at the right angle. Precision goes out the window. Wearing a helmet might have you step into a position you would otherwise not occupy without it. The more protection you add, the more removed you become from reality.
I am not advocating giving up protective gear, mind you. Once in a while, going “all out” with protections is good, if only to get used to the speed. You can however go almost “all out” with good control, without any gear. This way, you actually do get hit and learn to deal with it properly. The key is to start really slow, and I mean extreme slow motion. It looks goofy, but you gain much in precision and timing.
If your martial art style does not allow much contact, you need to ask yourself why you train. If you have a good time and consider it more or less an exercise, great. If you want the extra benefit of acquiring self-defense skills, you need to be able to get hit hard by bare fists as well as deliver heavy strikes the same way. No-contact effective self-defense is a fantasy.